A coup plotter, a defeated soldier, a US-sponsored exiled fugitive, and now powerful rebel warlord Khalifa Haftar has had an ever-shifting position in Libya’s political landscape.
Born in 1943, in the eastern town of Ajdabiya, Haftar was one of the officers led by Colonel Gaddafi in the 1969 coup which deposed King Idris from his throne.
Haftar gained Gaddafi's trust and was soon tasked with leading Libyan forces in the conflict with Chad in the 1980s.
The Chadian conflict marked a schism between both men as Gaddafi disowned Haftar after the latter was defeated and captured by French-backed Chadian forces in 1987.
After trying to lead an anti-Gadaffi rebellion from various African countries, in 1990 the CIA negotiated a settlement for Haftar to move to the United States under the US refugee programme.
Haftar spent the next two decades incessantly trying to topple Gaddafi from power – from exile in his home in Virginia to CIA headquarters.
This included a failed coup attempt against Gaddafi in the Jabal Akhdar mountains of eastern Libya in 1996, after which he moved back to suburban Virginia.
“His close relations to the US intelligence services has provided leeway for a wave of formidable accusations by commentators across the Middle East region,” said Hossam Abougabal, a geopolitical and economic analyst at the Dubai-based Middle East Economic Digest (MEED).
The bulk of the accusations against Haftar suggest that he worked with the CIA to topple Gaddafi.
His return to Libya following the 2011 uprising took many Libyans by surprise, and has since changed the dynamics of what remains a civil conflict marred by allegations of human rights abuses.
An astute strategist
Having obtained the support of the House of Representatives in Tobruk, Haftar’s forces launched Operation Dignity to rout extremist militants from Libya’s second largest city of Benghazi.
The year 2016 was a pivotal one for Haftar and his so-called Libyan National Army (LNA), which made significant strategic gains across the country.
“After February 2016, General Haftar has led an impressive campaign from the east,” said Major Mohammed Alboushi of the Libyan National Army and a member of the UN’s Libyan delegation.
Between February and April 2016, the LNA drove its opponents out of most of Benghazi, the largest city in the eastern region of the country.
In September 2016, Haftar’s LNA launched operation “Swift Thunder” seizing key oil terminals in Zueitnina, Brega, Ras Lanouf and Sidrah.
Es Sidr and Ras Lanuf are among the largest oil ports in the country and have the combined potential capacity of about 600,000 barrels per day (bdp). Libya’s peak production this year was around 700,000 bdp.
Consolidating his grip over Libya’s Oil Crescent has caused a rift between Haftar and the UN-brokered Government of National Accord (GNA).
Based in the west around the country’s capital Tripoli, the GNA previously controlled these areas under the supervision of an armed group known as the Petroleum Facilities Guard.
“Disagreements with the UN-brokered Government of National Accord (GNA) has stalled the peace process,” said Alboushi.
However, having laid claim to the largest portion of Libya, Haftar, who holds the rank of field marshal in the LNA, today holds a major advantage over his arch-rivals in the GNA.
His forces have expanded outside their traditional area of operations in eastern Libya, and are also present in the south around al Jawf and al Shwayrif, as well as in the west, on the outskirts of Tripoli.
He has translated this military superiority into a direct threat of using force to enter the Libyan capital Tripoli.
Meanwhile, the GNA is having issues with maintaining its own legitimacy in the capital with militias such as Ghwel directly challenging its authority.
The presidency council of the GNA has stated that if Haftar follows through with its aim to enter Tripoli that it would lead to “a bloodbath and eliminate all efforts aiming at achieving consensus and national unity.”
Is Haftar a war criminal ?
In March 2017, after Haftar’s LNA successfully gained control of west Benghazi, footage emerged showing soldiers parading the rotting body of an opponent commander on a vehicle.
The GNA accused Haftar’s forces of committing criminal acts, to which the LNA issued a statement saying it would investigate the abuses which were “individual acts and do not represent the instructions of the army.”
The LNA has been frequently accused of war-crimes by opposition militias, political parties, as well as international human rights groups.
Behind closed doors his own circle refers to him as a "butcher." Meanwhile, his opponents often refer to him as the “rogue general” and more recently the “new Gaddafi.”
In reality, he is still far from garnering Gadaffi’s regional aura reflected by his nickname "King of Kings," or even a domestic level establishing the invaluable tribal allegiances needed to bring about national unity.
Nevertheless, Haftar enjoys long-standing support from key actors across the Arab peninsula including Egypt and the UAE, whilst being courted by Russian and EU officials in recent times.
International support: Breeding the new "Libyan Jefe"
Haftar met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi earlier this month to discuss the continuing "fight against terrorism" in Libya.
“Closing down on a ‘common enemy’ being the Muslim Brotherhood, has made him an important strategic partner to both the United Arab Emirates and President Sisi's Egypt,” said Abougabal.
Both Egypt and the UAE have made public statements reflecting their support of Haftar’s LNA and both sides have been repeatedly accused of providing their ally with military support.
“His allies are also interested in guaranteeing peace and stability to end the power vacuum in Libya, which has become a hotbed for weapons and human trafficking, destabilising the surrounding region,” added Abougabal.
But Libya’s Arab neighbours are not the only states involved as others join Haftar’s global contact list.
Haftar visited Moscow in November 2016, holding high-profile meetings with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoygu, as well as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Cementing his position as a Russian ally, Haftar held a video call with Soygu aboard a Russian aircraft carrier positioned off the Libyan coast during the start of this year.
“Russia is interested in making its footprint in the south Mediterranean, as well as expanding its ongoing realpolitik in the Middle East with its support of the Bashar al Assad-Iran-Hezbollah axis, as well as former field marshal and current president of Egypt, Abdelfattah al Sisi,” said Abougabal.
As Libya remains under a UN imposed arms embargo, Haftar’s allies do not have much leeway to provide substantial military assistance to the LNA, but that has not stopped some of their western counterparts like the EU to call for the Libyan strongman to be a key part in Libya’s future.
“The influx of Europe-bound migrants from Libya has perhaps been the greatest motive for the EU to court Haftar. Also, his image as a competent general who will end the ills of extremism in the country has further added to his appeal for Western leaders,” said Abougabal.
UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson recently reinforced this view by expressing his hope of Haftar joining the GNA government and becoming a key part of Libya’s future without necessarily being the new “jefe” or head of state.
Despite his controversial rise to rebel command, accusations of war crimes and his lack of legitimacy as a national leader, it seems the ball is very much in Haftar’s court.
On April 24, HoR representative met with the UN-backed GNA government in Rome to negotiate a political solution. Details surrounding the meeting are not clear.
Nevertheless both sides seemed willing to pave way for a political agreement that would see the end of the bloodshed for the time being at least.
Will Haftar choose to push on with his military campaign towards Tripoli and strike a decisive victory? Will he continue to court foreign officials portraying him as a key component for Libya’s stability? And, in that case, will he accept not being at the helm of a new Libya?
The answers will surely reveal themselves with the next few moves Haftar makes, which may see him become a new Gadaffi in the making.
Author: Achment Gonim